For clownfish of the subfamily Amphiprioninae, sexual development is determined by social hierarchy in an arrangement known as sequential hermaphroditism. In this system, the group’s lone female occupies the highest rank of the hierarchy. The largest male, and therefore mate of the female, is next in line. This male is trailed in rank by some additional number of smaller males. If at any point the female leaves the group or dies, the highest-ranking male undergoes a transition of female sexual development and mates with the next highest-ranking male [1].

The easy joke here, this being the case, is that a biologically accurate version of Disney’s Finding Nemo [2] would have been a dramatically different movie. It’s one of the top 100 highest grossing films of all time, but for those unfamiliar, the story introduces us to a clownfish named Marlin and his son, Nemo. It’s just the two of them because unfortunately Marlin lost his mate and most of his progeny to a highly successful barracuda attack. His son Nemo was the sole survivor. Now then, Marlin and Nemo are the only fish in the group, and Marlin happens to be bigger. (Hence …). This is of course not to say that Finding Nemo should have been written this way. In fact, it would be nice if there were a way to illustrate this point without mentioning the movie at all, but the anthropomorphization of a hermaphroditic species is the ideal locus for understanding some of the main push of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble [3]. It allows us to bypass the knee-jerk reactions we might have to ideas about our own identities, and especially reservations about sex itself being socially constructed.

The turn is that we can go on telling our joke, getting the same polite laugh, but eventually another thought might occur: if this did happen in the movie, if Marlin had transitioned through female sexual development, would we necessarily know? Could we prove it from contextual cues? How could we decide conclusively? Nemo still calls Marlin “Dad”, the other fish address him (“him”) as “sir”, his voice sounds more masculine, but are any of these points binding in determining sex? Are they binding when taken together? Could these states all at least be possible in the world of the movie after his transition? What piece of information could we ascertain about Marlin that would tell us whether he is a man or a woman in a decisive way?

Left-leaning people in polite company are now more or less comfortable taking the stance that gender expression is decoupled from biological sex, that gender is “socially constructed” while sex is “natural”. Depending on who we’re talking to, we can usually get away with framing this as a moral injunction. We’re nice people that treat people nicely, so we’re not going to judge anyone for their gender expression. This is true. We should be nice. But the real weight of gender as a social construct comes from the explanation of how we know it to be the case and what it means for the way we form images of ourselves. Unfortunately, this concept is exceptionally difficult. It’s difficult because we’re trying to understand the limits of a system that we’re fully immersed in. We could say we see the world through a “lens” of gender, but if we’re not actively aware that there’s a lens, we believe what we see is the natural state. We must instead find ways to point out how specifically this lens distorts what we see. We can ask questions that test the veracity of our images. For gender, one stands out in particular: where it is that gender exists? If sex is supposedly manifested in the body, in the genome, where is gender? In what medium is it inscribed? Is it a property belonging to a person?

In Gender Trouble, the idea of construction is introduced through Simone de Beauvoir, and her axiomatic “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.” from The Second Sex [4]. To understand how Butler approaches this point, it’s important to remember that one pillar of poststructuralist thought is the idea that language limits the way we think in a way that is inescapable [5]. Further, we inherit our language from the people around us, and the elements of language are arbitrary. Words and concepts formed with language don’t necessarily describe the world with exact fidelity, so our thinking can drift from accuracy even if the operations we perform with language are sound within the rules of language itself (we can make grammatically correct statements about elves). Beauvoir’s point is ripe for this kind of analysis. If we’re faced with pointing to the individual elements of “one becomes a woman” in the world, we might have some difficulty with what “one” refers to. In saying this, Beauvoir does not merely indicate changes to the body. It’s not a reference to development or a medical operation required to become a woman. There’s a dimension to gender that isn’t linked to the body, such that even a man can “act” like a woman in an identifiable way.  But if “one” is not the body in this case, then what? The soul? Some deep inner essence or kernel that can have assignable qualities like “man” and “woman”? That internal place where we “feel” like a man or like a woman? Because of this lack of identifiable referent, Butler argues that Beauvoir’s statement commits the same error of mind-body dualism in Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”. More specifically, the problem of manifesting this “I” or “one” as a thing that exists concretely in the world is explained in the text via the metaphysics of substance, “a phrase associated with Nietzsche within the contemporary criticism of philosophical discourse” [3] (p. 28). For Nietzsche, “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; the ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything” [6]. When we say something like “one becomes”, we assume that there must be a subject to ground this predicate in existence, there must be a “one” that “becomes”. But in this case, we can’t seem to find a “one”, a subject, that we have access to independently of its “becoming”, its predicates. The “one” and the “I” that can have a gender are illusions created by grammar. Try to pin down what “it” is in “it is raining”. Do we need to have an answer to understand the sentence? To understand the present state of affairs? The doing is the meaning in this sentence. The “it” exists only on the page.

Marlin is enormously instructive here. In Beauvoir’s analysis, one who becomes a woman is doing so under cultural compulsion. The Nietzschean deeds that form the substance of this compulsion are obvious. We’re shaped as children, either through encouragement or correction (sometimes with violence), to act a certain way. Boys and girls are dressed accordingly, they’re told what toys to play with, how to play with them, how to talk, how to walk. This is reinforced throughout the rest of our lives by everyone around us (social construction). This of course is not an algorithmic totality, but it is prevalent enough for these roles to appear foundational. Alternatively, Marlin’s situation is interesting because he’s not so easily compelled. We’ve already established that Marlin’s body is forming female anatomical structures because Marlin is the biggest and the baddest. Marlin does what Marlin wants to, so if Marlin wants to keep on being addressed as “sir”, even after developing ovaries, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Further, if we say there’s some deeper self where his gender sits as an extant thing independent of his actions, there are difficult questions that need answering. Is he demanding to be called “sir” in violation of his womanly inner self, his cogito? Does the cogito/gender necessarilychange when his body changes? How would his previous male identity be overwritten? A possible argument against all of this would be that yes, we do sometimes “feel like a man” or “feel like a woman”. We like and identify with behaviors relegated to our gender. But we might like everything that isn’t allowed for our gender too. The problem is that it’s impossible for us to consider the idea without factoring in the potential words and actions of the people around us. This skews our behavior in a highly directed way, and serves as the true seat of gender’s existence. In the absence of this influence, Marlin’s gender expression and sex may be truly decoupled; his gender expression is even murkier as a conduit to his anatomy, but this disconnect exists at some level for us all.

The idea that the two biological sexes were fabricated out of thin air is more difficult to approach, but we can ask a less daunting intermediate question that makes the same point: is this system of categorization optimal? How close is this synthetic linguistic structure to the actual state of affairs in reality? Would we be better off if we developed a new way to organize our thinking about people and bodies? In a 1942 essay about John Wilkins’ universal language [7], Jorge Luis Borges recounts a taxonomy detailed in an alleged Chinese encyclopedia, The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. To organize the animals of the world, the encyclopedia breaks them down into categories like “those that belong to the emperor”, “suckling pigs”, “those that tremble as if they are mad”, “others”, and “those that look like flies from a long way off”. This sounds ridiculous, but we could easily go about shuffling animals into these categories. The criteria aren’t incoherent. In fact, due to the inclusion of “others” as a category, we could fit any and every animal into a category. If we lived in this world, the system would appear normal and complete. The lamentable fact, which we might never have cause to realize, is that we would miss things. A naturalism based on this system would never give rise to a cogent and defensible theory of evolution. What if some members of the family Felidae in our Linnean taxonomy belong to the emperor and others look like flies from a long way off? We’ve begun to notice, thanks to our ever-improving technological capabilities, that there are iterations of the human form that can only be shunted into the categories of “man” and woman” with some amount of force.

Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World [8] details a number of cases that don’t fit the standard male/female binary. If we actually look at what features are present in the human population, we can find individuals that have both testes and a vagina, people that develop a scrotum despite having two X chromosomes, or people that appear outwardly female at birth, but develop a penis during puberty [9]. This is obviously nowhere near a complete list of possible arrangements. Variation to this degree is possible because the relationship between our chromosomes and sexual phenotype is mediated by an irrationally complex Rube Goldberg machine of molecular signaling. Not only is the signaling complex, but just like in a Rube Goldberg machine, there isn’t any one part that’s central, more important, or more influential than any other part. Arriving at any particular endpoint means each piece functioning in a specific way. The Sry gene on the Y chromosome was at one point believed to be the sole master switch for male development, but it turns out the Sox9 gene on autosomal chromosome 17 is also required. If Sox9 is absent, female development occurs (though sans ovaries) despite the XY karyotype. Do we then have to refer to what we think of as male as “XY plus Sox9”? Sox9 is just as crucial as the Y chromosome. Similarly, Fausto-Sterling recounts the importance of the gene R-spondin1 in female development. Without this gene, also on an autosome, XX humans will develop testes and a penis. Where was Sry in this? The complexity of our biology is clearly capable of producing more than two neatly divided arrangements. The temptation is to respond to these cases by saying “oh, no, no, no, that’s not how it’s supposed to happen. These are accidents”, but to say this is to enact the social construction of sex in real time. Nature is a mechanism of brute force development through variation, and these dynamics act at different levels on the individual and population. We’re not always going to have access to the real context of what we see through our one narrow perspective.  When we find ourselves telling nature how it ought to behave, we’re falling into a prescriptivist construction of sex rather than a descriptivist identification of what exists in nature. The more we understand our biology, the harder it is to pin down what exactly can be identified as a stable, nuclear indicator of sex in a male/female binary. Instead, we have a number of positive characteristics whose negative space generates an illusory silhouette of two distinct forms.

The natural question is that if sex and gender are constructs, what do we do with this information? What project begins at that conclusion? Another pillar of poststructuralist thought is to decentralize the question of “what” a particular thing is. Often, the “what” of a thing is only relevant because of two arguably more immediate questions: “who wants to know and why?”. For Foucault, sexualized subjects are actively produced by differential power relations. When a policy is implemented, a law is passed, or infrastructure is built that distinguishes between male and female, these actions actively expand the intelligibility of these categories and provide a foundation for distinction that might not have been accessible before [3] (p. 40). We are men and women by way of bureaucracy. Crucially, this dynamic is immediately visible and malleable in a way that an ontological depiction of men and women could never be. Consider the world of sports, where it occasionally becomes relevant to attempt a scientific determination of an adult human’s sex. In 1967, Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska was barred from competition by the International Amateur Athletic Foundation [10]. While she herself and a panel of three doctors concluded she was a woman based on external examinations, a subsequent analysis of her cheek cells showed that she had “one chromosome too many”. No explanation is attempted at what this one chromosome did or how it conferred an unfair advantage, but generally this is characteristic of how our society deals with intersex people. Two divisions for sports, two bathrooms, two options on a birth certificate. People that don’t fit neatly into these categories are not pointedly relegated to being a separate category. They instead go completely unarticulated. The IAAF couldn’t say Ewa Kobukowska was a woman, but they also didn’t conclude she was a man. Nor was a third division opened for her and others like her to compete. She was simply barred from competition. Butler builds on Foucault’s comments on the hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin by pointing out that “Herculine is not an “identify”, but the sexual impossibility of an identity” [3] (p. 32). Incidentally, it’s difficult to estimate the actual number of intersex people in the population because there isn’t a clear way to determine what markers should be included in the analysis, but the range of estimates sits between one in 5,000 and one in 60 [11]. We can all reflect on how sure we are of our own karyotype and what recourse we would have if it weren’t exactly what we thought it was.

Structures like this are subject to change, though this itself is difficult because attempts to represent groups based on gender are either culturally incoherent or otherwise self-defeating, given that they require the formation of a subject while simultaneously working to emancipate people from exactly that form of regulation. To liberate “women”, “women” must first be identified, but as Butler points out, “there is the political problem that feminism encounters in the assumption that the term women denotes a common identity”. In fact, a portion of the first chapter of Gender Trouble is a highbrow rant about how difficult it is to represent women in an inclusive, politically-effective way. If we return to clownfish one last time, we can imagine that while the males in the hierarchy can be grouped loosely by their sexual anatomy, those individuals are going to have dramatically different perspectives, and they’re likely to be less and less opposed to the hierarchy as they get bigger.

It’s difficult to comb through these points and feel like any progress is being made. But for gender, stripping away aspects of this system might actually be a mode of progress. This wouldn’t even necessarily require a rejection of the concepts of sex and gender as much as relaxing the insistence that they’re a perfect binary or at all precise. We can begin to loosen our world’s built-in assumptions about people’s anatomy or gender expression. We can shift the focus away from the sexual binary as a foundation for decision making and order. Biological sex is a product of science, but as were the luminiferous aether, phlogiston, and relevantly, the idea that the migration of the uterus caused women to have “the vapors” [12]. To its credit, science is relatively quick to correct itself, improve, and refine as new technologies emerge and new discoveries are made. We have less and less reason to lean on sex as a hazy, shorthand means of assessing a person medically, psychologically, or for their acumen in any given field. Even if some aspects of our current concept of sex are useful, the descriptive power of the sexual binary is suboptimal. We can and should strive to find new means of description that will more accurately reflect how are bodies are structured and what we can do with our lives.   

Works Cited

1. Wang, H. et al., 2022. Transcriptome Profiling and Expression Localization of Key Sex-Related Genes in a Socially-Controlled Hermaphroditic Clownfish, Amphiprion Clarkii. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 23, 9085.

2. Unkrich, L., & Stanton, A. Finding Nemo. Buena Vista Pictures, 2003.

3. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 2006.

4. Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Vintage, 1973.

5. Belsey, Catherine. Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2002.

6. Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Vintage, 1969.

7. Borges, Jorge Luis. Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952. University of Texas Press, 1964.

8. Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World. Routledge, 2012.

9. Rettner, Rachel. ‘Geuvedoces’: Rare Medical Condition Hides Child’s Sex Until Age 12. Live Science, 2015.

10. Genetics: Mosaic in X & Y. Time, 1967.

11. Padawer, Ruth. The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes. The New York Times Magazine, 2016.

12. Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Vintage, 1988.

Eric Kenney is a postdoctoral scientist working on transgenesis. His interests are molecular biology, philosophy of language, and poststructuralism.

One thought on “Gender Bubble: A Few Points from Judith Butler Explained via a Sexually Ambiguous Clownfish

  1. Pingback: Eric Kenney / Burbuja de género: Algunos puntos de Judith Butler explicados a través de un pez payaso sexualmente ambiguo – Ficción de la razón

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